When Finland Defeated The USSR.

by Daniel Russ on March 19, 2010

Resupplied Finnish Troops, WWII

When borders were falling like flies in the late 1930s in Europe, a conflict was sparking between Russia and Finland. No love was lost between these two people who not only despised each other, they avoided each other. The Russian felt the Finns were on land that should be Soviet and the Finns patted themselves on the back for having avoided Bolshevism. The Finns were fearful of Stalin in addition to holding him in contempt, and hoped the problem would disappear. But in 1938, Joseph Stalin was looking at the Karelian Isthmus, which served as the only land bridge between Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland, and ultimately the Baltic Sea. Stalin wanted to make some adjustments to the borders and offered a spit of land to the north of Finland in exchange for access. At some point the Soviets insisted that Finland cede, not just trade use of, but cede the Karelian Isthmus and the Aaland Islands. The Finns demured.

On November 30th, Soviet bombers appeared over the skies of Helsinki and thus began the Russo-Finnish War.

The notes here I am making are not about the inevitable outcome of a conflict between an elephant and a porcupine. Yes, the porcupine will make the elephant uncomfortable, but it will not defeat the elephant. If the Soviet Union is the elephant here and Finland is the porcupine, then the tale is best told as an almost total defeat of the larger force.

Finland had a quarter of a million men under arms, mostly what appeared to be infantry bi-athletes, riflemen on skies. They lacked radios, tents and fully automatic weapons. Yet they took on a force of 1.2 million, including 1500 tanks and 3000 aircraft.

The terrain and the day went to Finland for the first few months of the war. The roads in Finland at the time could barely support tanks in the summer much less the harsh winter roads when the attack came. Tank units often had to find their own ways into Finland and that meant without infantry support. So tanks were often on their own making way through old mountain wagon trails. The supply line was thusly stressed and it took much longer to refuel Russian tanks on their westward invasion route. Bad weather and poor ground visibility under the canopy of trees hid Finn military assets from the Soviet air force, and essentially neutralized the Soviet air support. Perhaps the war with Finland is really where Stalin learned that his purges of the 1930s had decimated his best combat commanders. The troops were poorly trained, poorly led, poorly equipped and the movement of the offensive was easily bogged down. Voroshilov, a Russian commander who survived the purges told Stalin to his face that he had eliminated too many talented leaders and that is why Russia was faring so poorly on the battlefield.

The Soviet 14th Army attacked in the north out of Murmansk. The 9th Army attacked Saila further south, the Soviet 8th Army moved from Lake Ladoga and the 13th and 7th Army tried to take the Karelian Isthmus.

Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, Finnish Military Leader, WWII

Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim was a former Russian cavalry commander who bought in WWI had risen to power and took over the Finnish Army even though he lost an election there earlier and had been in a self imposed military exile. He was a successful diplomat and a bon vivant. But in his early 70s, many thought his day had come and gone. Yet Mannerheim conducted one of the most brilliant defensive wars against a superior force in history. At the end of the day, the Finns sided with the Nazis but managed to avoid most of the devastation that Germany’s allies received, and the maintain a post WWII neutrality that has served them well.

One of the things Mannerheim was able to do was mobilize large numbers of small units to fight a defensive war of harassment and guerrilla ambush. It here in Finland where the Molotov cocktail was used against the Russians themselves. Not only were the Finns successful in stopping Soviet armor, they had to order another 40,000 empty liquor bottles to go to the Finnish front so that could filled with more combustibles and destroy more Russian tanks. Finn infantry shot the Russians to pieces. It was more a massive line of inexperienced infantry versus well hidden blooded hunters, who might as well have been snipers.  At Suomussalmi, the Finns trapped and utterly destroyed two full Russian infantry divisions and inflicted 23000 casualties for the price of 800 of their own.

Mannerheim had devised his own Maginot line called appropriately the Mannerheim Line to defend against an invasion from the Russian continent over the Karelian land bridge.

Suffice it to say that a massive counter attack under the command of Marshall Zhukov was required to subdue the Finns. Finland lost a tenth of its total territory in a truce agreement, and had lost any chance of having Germany defend it even though Finnish tank units did attack Stalingrad on behalf of Hitler as part of Army Group North.

It was the epic failure of the USSR to stamp out Finland that encouraged Hitler to invade Russia. he saw what a tiny agrarian nation could do to the Russians and had no fear of them. “I’ll kick the door in and the whole rotten thing will come falling down,” Hitler quipped after the Soviet Finnish War.

Time and war would change that notion completely.

Source: MHQ

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

stephen April 9, 2011 at 11:00 am

Hi, nice article, but there are two mistakes;

1 – the Finns did not attack Stalingrad, or Leningrad for that matter.
2 – it was Marshal Timoshenko and not Zhukov who led the final assault on Finland.

I am not sure if Finland could be described as an “Agrarian” nation in 1938 as they had a substatial industry and GDP grew 400% since independence. Compare this to Soviet economic stagnation… embarrassing to say the least for the Soviets.

Best regards

Daniel Russ April 9, 2011 at 11:46 am

Finnish divisions did indeed attack Leningrad and Stalingrad.

Ed Kolby October 9, 2011 at 1:21 am

What Finnish division attacked Stalingrad?

Daniel Russ October 9, 2011 at 6:50 am

The Third Finnish Division staged from the Barents Sea. 150,000 of them from the 3rd and the Karelian Army.

Louis August 28, 2017 at 8:11 am

I think you confuse Murmansk and Stalingrad. The Finns, in what they termed the “Continuation War”, only fought for territory that could be considered traditionally Finnish. That is why they did not directly attack Leningrad (they only besieged it, and even that not very active), and stopped more or less on the pre-1939 Finnish-Soviet border. However they did participate (with the Finnish 3rd Division) in a German offensive in the extreme north, to try and capture Murmansk, which is where the Allied Convoys to the USSR came in.

Tom Paine March 8, 2018 at 3:00 pm

Finland may have won some battles but lost both wars. They never ‘defeated’ the Soviet Union.

Daniel Russ March 8, 2018 at 3:14 pm

Yes they did

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